08/06/2004 12:00AM

Build pick four upon Rock

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - No matter what method of choice is used when it comes to handicapping Sunday's Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational - be it speed figures, class, or a mail order horse racing calculator - there's a good chance that you will end up liking either Lion Heart or Rock Hard Ten. It's tough not to: Both have run against the best horses of their generation and have been earning Beyers generally well above what the rest of the field has been putting up.

Of course, you're not the only one. Monmouth Park track handicapper Brad Thomas made Lion Heart the 9-5 choice on the morning line, with Rock Hard Ten a close second choice at 2-1. If you box them in the exacta you might make enough to buy a "Summer Wind," a vodka and lime concoction that's being billed as the drink of the Haskell. For those who don't drink, or don't drink that, anyway, there are alternatives available, and they can be found in the pick threes and the late pick four.

The fact that Thomas made Lion Heart a slight favorite could prove significant. With many unsophisticated players in the crowd unwilling to double the cost of a multi-race exotic wager by using two horses in a given leg rather than one, there's a good chance that Lion Heart will be a heavier favorite in these pools than he is on the odds board, as some will merely use the morning-line favorite as a stand-alone selection. The fact that the races surrounding the Haskell in the pick threes and the late pick four (encompassing races 11-14) are competitive events makes it even more likely that Monmouth's marquee stakes will be one of those races where many will try to sneak by with the favorite and "spread" in the other races to try and catch a price. Granted, the disparity in prices won't be astounding, but, since there's likely to be little between the two favorites in terms of exacta and win odds, those players who like Rock Hard Ten may be wise to seek out whatever value lies in other pools.

The other benefit to this strategy is that, frankly, you will have your money riding on the best horse in the race. Rock Hard Ten comes off a dynamite win in the Swaps, which resulted in a Beyer of 109, his career best. The only time he has crossed the finish line worse than second on the wire was in the Belmont, a complete throw-out given the distance and the trip he had, not to mention his antics preceding the race. All of that is supposedly behind him now, as he schooled well at Monmouth on Friday.

It may be that Lion Heart's best race is when he's on the front end. And if he's under pressure from Wimplestiltskin on the lead in the Haskell, with Rock Hard Ten sitting a perfect third, you don't want to be holding a pick four ticket singling the morning-line favorite.

Here's a late pick four ticket for $36 that might work:

Race 11: Kathir (No. 4) seems to be the key in the Oceanport, but I, for one, would hate to get beat in the first leg by the classy Del Mar Show (7). I will take a stance against Burning Roma, who moves outside to post 10.

Race 12: The Regret Stakes looks like a fairly deep field. You have to use Travelator (1) and She is Raging (6), but I will also include Hidden Ransom (3), who flew home in her latest and now makes her third start off the layoff.

Race 13: Use only Rock Hard Ten (5). Relax. Have a Summer Wind.

Race 14: May be best to go deep here: Supersonic Sun (4), Pasketty (6), Gadget Man (7), Dixie Boy (8), Game Box (10), and Shining Hawk (12) should cover it.